Jewish Journal


August 30, 2001

Actions Speak Volumes

Sending message to foes of Israel, Colin Powell boycotts Durban meeting.


A member of an Arab nonprofit protests against Israel at the opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Photo by Anna Zieminski/AFP

A member of an Arab nonprofit protests against Israel at the opening ceremony of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban. Photo by Anna Zieminski/AFP

Sending a strong signal to the international community, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is boycotting the U.N. World Conference Against Racism -- which begins this week -- because of an anti-Israel atmosphere.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell will not attend the conference in Durban, South Africa, because proposed resolutions for the conference unfairly criticize Israel -- and the meeting will provide a forum for speakers to single out Israel repeatedly. (Washington will probably send a mid-level official to the gathering -- Ambassador E. Michael Southwick, the deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.)

"There was a whole series of references to one particular government, to one particular country, and to its policies as being racist," Boucher said Monday. "That's what we object to."

Following the U.S. lead, Canada announced Tuesday it was reconsidering whether to send a Cabinet representative.

Also Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan criticized the American decision.

"No country is immune from racism and xenophobia," Annan said during a trip to Austria. "I hope the U.S. will participate and that they will come and sit with other governments to move the process forward."

Meanwhile, at least one Arab delegate at the Durban conference seemed to celebrate the U.S. absence.

"It's a clear political message that the Americans are insisting to show they are not on the side of human rights defenders," Shaqi Issa, a spokesman for the Arab nongovernmental bloc, told Reuters. "It will make the conference easier. Usually the Americans are the obstacle to a good agreement on human rights."

Powell had expressed his interest in attending the conference, which begins Friday, and was being encouraged to do so by black and civil rights groups. Powell also had spoken with Annan several times over the weekend about the conference.

But U.S. efforts failed to remove anti-Israel statements from the conference agenda, prompting Powell to opt out of the meeting.

Taking their cue from Washington's actions, Israel and American Jewish groups also said they would boycott the conference or drastically reduce their presence.

Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America, has been following the issue for two years. Hadassah sent a delegation to Durban, but by midweek was considering walking out.

The atmosphere in Durban this week was already hostile toward Israel and its supporters.

Some delegates from nongovernmental organizations milled about in T-shirts that read, for example, "Israel = Occupation = Apartheid." Posters around the convention hall featured the image of a Palestinian boy killed in Israeli-Palestinian crossfire in the first few weeks of violence last fall.

U.N. Watch, a human rights group run by the American Jewish Committee, was pressing conference organizers to kick out an Arab organization for reportedly circulating an anti-Semitic pamphlet. The group said the pamphlet, distributed by an organization calling itself the Arab Lawyers Union, depicts Jews with fangs dripping with blood and wearing helmets inscribed with Nazi swastikas.

"The countries of the world are making a decision right now to allow the Arab states and the Palestinians to hijack the conference and cynically manipulate the human condition to achieve narrow political victories," said Amy Goldstein, Hadassah's director of Israel, Zionist and International Affairs.

Israel Singer, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, said that after Washington's announcement, the WJC, the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel decided to boycott the Durban conference.

"There's very little to hope for, given the wording of the declaration and the hopelessness of 'friendly countries' not supporting us," Singer said.

"We want people to know that those who have put out this statement have undercut international organizations and the cause for human rights. We shall continue to support both international organizations and human rights, but not through this machinery."

The State Department decision was foreshadowed last Friday when President Bush told reporters that he did not want to send a delegation of any kind to Durban unless the language on the agenda was changed substantively.

"We have made it very clear, through Colin Powell's office, that we will have no representative there so long as they pick on Israel, so long as they continue to say Zionism is racism," Bush said in a news conference in Texas. "If they use the forum as a way to isolate our friend and strong ally, we will not participate."

Boucher said the major sticking point was the language relating to Jews and Israel. Some proposals for the conference including writing the Holocaust with a small h -- thereby minimizing its uniqueness -- and criticizing the supposed "ethnic cleansing of the Arab population in historic Palestine."

Arab and Muslim states inserted the anti-Israeli rhetoric during preparatory conferences in which countries submitted referenda for debate. American Jewish groups, who will attend the conference as nongovernmental organizations, worked with the United States and Israel to remove the language, to no avail.

The American Jewish community has had mixed views on whether Powell, or a lower-level American delegation, should go to Durban, but many felt Powell sent a strong message to the international community by deciding to boycott.

"It shows the Bush administration's commitment to not allowing those who are opposed to peace to use this conference for their anti-Israel agenda," said Rebecca Needler, spokeswoman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"That message is ultimately more important than coming here and trying to get the conference back on track," said Michael Salberg, a national commissioner for the Anti-Defamation League who is in Durban preparing for the summit.

JTA Staff Writer Michael J. Jordan in New York contributed to this report.

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